Josh Drummond of Bigpipe, our new Gaming section sponsor, on the fiendishly addictive and deceptively simple soccer/driving mashup, Rocket League.
It goes like this: I’m in my second week at my new job at Bigpipe. Our product team – just three of us – are working on probably our most important project, and at the last minute, I muck everything up, prompting an anguished yowl from my boss, Ollie. “Why, Josh? Why? Why are you so bad at this?”
“You’re sacked,” says Corey, the marketing manager. “You shouldn’t have overstated how good you were at this during your interview.”
I head back to my desk, unable to help overhearing the conversation continuing without me, the general gist of which is how awful I am. Fortunately for my employment prospects, they are talking about how bad I am at Rocket League. Also, unfortunately for my employment prospects, they are talking about how bad I am at Rocket League.
Rocket League is soccer, except the players are rocket-powered cars and the ball explodes when you get a goal. It plays exactly like that sounds. Each player controls one car. You jump and flip your car to “kick” the ball and boost to fly through the air and completely miss the ball, conceding a crucial goal, which is what I do best, apparently. I’m really not very good at it, but I love it – both facts that I absolutely did stress in my job interview and which became, in office legend, “Remember how you said you were amazing at Rocket League when you’re actually shit at it?”
Enough people seem to enjoy the game, though. At least 5 million people have installed it, Twitch stream-watchers have gone nuts for it, it has a thriving online community, and there are already Rocket League, er, leagues, with the game beginning to appear in e-sports rotations. It’s big, and getting bigger, and our office is far from immune to the Rocket League fever. When Rocket League came out, I didn’t even bother downloading it for free on my PlayStation Plus subscription, which hands out around four games a month gratis to members. I’d seen about ten seconds of Rocket League footage and I thought it looked stupid. Instead, I got a game called Styx: Master of Shadows about an orc called Styx who kills people (from the shadows, of which he is master.) It was horrible and I deleted it after just 20 minutes of frustrating gameplay punctuated with some of the worst-written cutscenes I’ve ever seen in a game. Then a mate messaged me on Facebook. “Rocket League is free on ps+, make sure you grab it if you haven’t.” “It’s good?” “It’s phenomenal.”
He wasn’t wrong. Rocket League one of the most immediately entertaining, involving games I’ve ever played. Within minutes, I found myself doing something I’d only ever seen people do on sitcoms: wildly twisting and pulling at the controller like it was a steering wheel in a futile effort to make the car turn better. I also scored a goal within the first ten seconds of play, which was not a trend that continued. It was horribly addictive and I played far too much of it. I shanghaied friends into creating accounts and playing with me. I also made a point of yelling to inform my wife every time I scored a particularly spectacular goal, which, to me, was all of them. It got stuck in my brain to the point where mentioning it at a job interview seemed entirely normal. The Witcher 3, a critically-acclaimed, blockbuster Game of the Year, sat unused in my PS4; I lent it to a mate, a self-employed guy with a six-month-old kid and who – somehow – has more spare time than I do.
It was so much fun. Then it wasn’t.
This comparison is probably completely offensive, but I really don’t care because the metaphor works so well; Rocket League is gaming meth. At first it’s all woo-hoos and look, honey, did you see how I just flipped my car on a soccer field, and then it’s anger and hate and invisible bugs under your skin, probably. Rocket League is all fun and games until you get good enough to realise how bad you are at the game, and the drive to improve – and in improving, win – begins to eat your enjoyment of the game and your life. Like soccer, it’s very intuitive to understand and play at a basic level, but mastery takes real commitment and time – and a fair bit of sheer gaming skill, which is something I have absolutely never possessed.
That didn’t stop me trying to get good. It never does. My drive for self-improvement is wired almost perfectly backwards; I tend to neglect improving things I’m already decent at in favour of upskilling things I’m destined to be bad at. This ended the way it always does; in a deep pit of self-loathing and frustrated despair. It’s a relative pit, of course – it wasn’t quite as bad as the frustration of not being able to vacuum a really stubborn piece of fluff, or the death of a loved one, but it was enough. The chip on my shoulder grew to the point where it was affecting my game, and I was even worse than when I started playing.
It wasn’t a good place to be. I’d just started my new job and a reasonable proficiency in lunchtime Rocket League was clearly key to climbing the corporate ladder, or at least, to avoid disappointing the boss. But when playing Rocket League began to join working on spreadsheets in my dreams – my actual, night-time dreams, where merging two cells in Excel was somehow the same as scoring a goal – I knew it was time to give up.
I didn’t actually give up playing, of course. Rocket League is still our lunchtime team-banter-bonding game of choice, and I’m not about to miss out on that. I gave up my pathological need to be good at the game – during work hours. I now play in a kind of zen-state, mindful, yet pathologically indifferent. My car flips and darts about acrobatically; I sit, catatonic.
This seems to have made me a bit better at Rocket League, which has made the rest of the product team a lot happier, especially when we’re taking on our bitter rivals, the customer care team.
And during the night hours, I can embrace my Rocket League rage, channel my frustration, and scream silently at the screen as my wife sleeps.
Bigpipe will be playing the public at Rocket League at their Armageddon stall this Labour weekend, 24-27 October, at the ASB Showgrounds. Rocket League is available for PS4 and PC, so get your practice in now. You can find Josh on PSN as maverick_carter and Bigpipe as BigpipeNZ.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.